Under Fire in Ramadi

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RAMADI RAID: Troops respond to an ambush that wounded two soldiers

The call comes shortly before noon: Insurgents toting AK-47s and RPGs have ambushed a Marine patrol in Ramadi, wounding two soldiers. At Combat Outpost, a dusty, sun-baked base that houses two companies of the 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, the Quick Reaction Force mounts up. Moments later, a convoy of armored Humvees, seven-ton trucks and reinforced high-backed personnel carriers tears into the streets of the long-restive town.

It is September 30. The Golf and Fox companies officially took command of Combat Outpost on September 17, five days after a seven-hour firefight had served as a reminder that Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, remains a key battleground in the war to shape Iraq's future. Not quite a no-go zone like insurgent-controlled Fallujah, Ramadi instead is the scene of an ongoing contest for control — The Marines on one side, various insurgent groups on the other, the people of Ramadi in the middle. "There is fighting near houses in the neighborhoods, says one of them, Waleed al-Haeti, 31. "You can lose your life just going to the market."

The Marines are trying to identify their enemy and hunt him down, hoping to achieve the security needed to hold elections in the Sunni triangle. Insurgents, however, their numbers estimated in the hundreds, are intimidating locals, kidnapping and killing local officials, and staging frequent hit-and-run attacks. Regiment commander Lt. Col. Randall P. Newman believes foreign fighters are coming back and forth from Fallujah, mixing with ex-Baathists and local criminals in a combined effort to keep the city unstable. "It's almost like a chess match," says Golf Company executive officer, Lt. Dennis Doyle — one the U.S. and its Iraqi allies must win because "what happens here will have ramifications for the whole province."

Now, in the wake of the ambush, the Marines are making their move. Peeling off the main road, the vehicles roar through dirt and trash toward Market Street, kicking up a thick liquid that sprays troops in the trucks. "Please tell me that wasn't sewage," says one, though the smell leaves no doubt. Gunnery Sergeant Michael Miller's Humvee turns south and stops near the casualties — one hit in the arm, the other in the leg — who are loaded into an ambulance as squad mates aim rifles down the alley from which they took fire.

Miller's vehicle escorts the ambulance back to Combat Outpost, where the wounded are prepped for medevac to the larger base nearby. Having returned from a raid about seven hours ago, Golf Company's 3rd Platoon now heads out again with several other units. Past the ambush site, the men dismount, charging into houses and up to the roofs to get a birds-eye view of the battleground. Amidst sporadic gunfire, company commander Capt. Jeffrey Kenney radios that satellite pictures show the insurgents have moved west, and he directs his troops that way.

Keeping close to the walls for cover, the 3rd Platoon, led by Lt. Philip Downs, 23, winds quickly through garbage-strewn alleys toward Easy Street, the western edge of Golf Company's area of operations. Another platoon has shot two men who got out of a car and fired AKs at them. Downs's men periodically burst into houses and climb onto roofs for a better view of the situation. When soldiers arrive, the inhabitants, knowing the drill, move quietly into front rooms and huddle anxiously. One man pointed to bloodstains on his floor, saying insurgents had passed through moments earlier dragging a wounded comrade.

Halfway to Easy Street, Downs positions his men on a rooftop. Shots kicks up debris in front of a soldier. "Where's that coming from?" calls Downs. "I don't know, but he's trying to shoot me," the soldier replies.

Identifying their enemy remains a primary challenge. These Marines were given seminars in specialized guerilla tactics before re-deploying, but they are still not sure who they're fighting against, or where to find them. Fearing retribution, locals are scared to be seen talking to the troops, much less providing intelligence. The insurgents themselves remove their injured or killed before they can be found. "Very few of us have ever seen one," says 2nd Lt. Brian P. Iglesias. Unlike the tactics in Fallujah, the Marines in Ramadi have not been using air strikes. It's a street-to-street battle, as much police work as anything else, which the Marines must wage without the benefit of a viable police force.

Downs's men reach easy street and turn north. Shots fired from a westerly direction clang off a metal pole above one Marine running exposed along the eastern side of the street. As troops return fire, 3rd platoon members rush up a dilapidated staircase, taking another rooftop position. They had understood that another company would halt traffic moving down Easy Street, but cars keep coming. Warning shots force some to back up. But one car, then a truck, then another car, react to the warning shots by speeding up, at which point the Marines shoot first the tires, then the windshield.

During a brief lull, a Marine in a house near the now disabled vehicles runs into the street and pulls a boy from the truck, carrying him over his shoulder back into the house. Inside, four Marines tend to the sobbing boy, who has been shot in the shin and is calling out in Arabic, which no one understands. "Why don't they hit the brakes?" says one Marine to no one in particular. "I think we killed that kid's dad," says another. A truck approaches but warning shots turn it around. "Tell them to stop all traffic!" a Marine shouts. "Too many cars are coming down here. We're shooting the wrong people."

Two more Marines pull a semi-conscious older man — not the boy's father — from one of the cars. His shirt soaked with blood, he's been shot in the jaw, the lower left side of his face torn apart. Lance Corporal Nathaniel Bitsui, having just tended to the boy's leg, now presses bandages against the wound and tries to get an IV into his arm as squad leaders call for an ambulance. Emitting raspy moans, the man stares beseechingly at Bitsui, who cannot get the needle into the man's collapsing veins. A Marine ambulance arrives shortly and takes the civilians back to Combat Outpost.

Satellite pictures show that 14 insurgents have moved south and prepared an ambush near Ramadi's soccer stadium. Humvees and trucks ferry troops that way. Upon arrival, they head to the rooftops. An explosion occurs to the west, and the streets cough black smoke into the sky. The town briefly goes quiet save a few isolated shots. Pigeons perch on a rooftop aerial, cooing softly. Bitsui tries to clean the blood from his fingers. "You just hate for that to happen," says Cpl. Edward B. Wiley. "You see a kid like that, it makes you sick. But some of these people, these suicide bombers, are crazy. You never know what's coming at you." Later, Kenney says, "That's something we definitely have to get better at." In this environment, discerning if an accelerating drive is showing hostile intent or simply panicking after being shot at, "that's a hell of a decision for a young man to make."

Reflection will come later; the battle is still raging. The next move, says Wiley, "is we go toward the ambush, to pick a fight. They started it; we're going to finish it." But word comes that the insurgents have dispersed, melting away before the showdown the Marines so desperately want, that they were trained to win. But despite their superior firepower and technology, the Marines cannot dictate the terms of this fight. Instead, they move back down the stairs once more, past women and children huddled in the front room, into their vehicles and back to the base.

It was hardly the biggest or most dramatic battle of this war, and wasn't reported anywhere in the news media the next day. It was simply one more day of bravery and tragedy, one more step in the Marines' ongoing education in the confusion that marks this phase of the war. The momentum of the chaos began long before these Marines arrived in Ramadi, but circumstances are forcing them to learn hard lessons on the fly, while fellow soldiers and Iraqis continue to fight, kill and die. Back at the base, Kenney says the two wounded Marines are being treated for their injuries. There were no other Marine casualties. He says the Iraqi boy and the older man are in stable condition at a local hospital; he doesn't know what happened to the boy's father. As for enemy losses, Kenney says his men killed five insurgents during the battle, but that he can't be sure because no bodies were recovered.